From the Winter 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More than 40 species of birds-of-paradise live in New Guinea’s swaths of the Indo-Pacific rainforest region, one of the largest intact tropical forested areas on Earth. In the following slideshows, explore the landscapes, forests, birds, mammals, and insects of New Guinea—the most species-rich island on Earth.

Biodiversity Abounds, From Treetops to Forest Floor

The Indo-Pacific forest region sprawls across the islands around New Guinea. Among the Raja Ampat Islands of West Papua, Indonesia, Red Birds-of-Paradise dance in the treetops for their breeding displays. On the Indonesian side of the island of New Guinea, the high peaks of the Jayawijaya Mountains rise above dense forest; a Black Sicklebill calls from a perch overlooking rugged, mist-shrouded cloud forest; and a male Western Parotia cleans fallen leaves from his breeding display court on the forest floor in the Arfak Mountains.

Forest Ambassadors

The stars of the show in National Geographic and PBS Nature TV documentaries, the more than 40 species in the birds-of-paradise family have become icons of New Guinea’s rainforests. Their extraordinary beauty is unlike that of any other birds on Earth, but it’s their wide range of bizarre breeding behaviors that captivates audiences—from elaborate dancing and flaring their elegant plumes to shape-shifting displays that make these exotic species seem like avian transformers.

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Home to More Species Than Any Other Island on Earth

The island of New Guinea contains more than 1,700 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. But unlike other rainforests in the Oceania region, New Guinea lacks native species of primates and most other fruit-eating mammals. Instead the forests have coevolved with fruit-eating birds serving as the primary seed dispersers. Without these birds, New Guinea’s spectacularly biodiverse forests as we know them would not exist.

 

pandanus trees in the cloud forest of the Arfak Mountains. Photo by Tim Laman.Looking up at the canopy of the cloud forest in the Arfak Mountains.

Lungs for the Planet

The pandanus trees in the cloud forest of the Arfak Mountains form a dense canopy of biomass that takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen back into the atmosphere. The intact rainforests of New Guinea and the Indo-Pacific region are one of the world’s most important greenhouse gas reservoirs, as they store vast amounts of carbon in their trees and soils.

The future of the planet, it could be said, is tied to the forest home of the birds-of-paradise.

Tim Laman is a research associate in ornithology at Harvard University, contributing photographer for National Geographic magazine, and cofounder with Edwin Scholes of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds-of-Paradise Project.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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